Toddler's Attention Affects Social Competence

December 03, 1996

ITHACA, N.Y. -- How well a parent can capture and keep a 2-year-old's attention on a toy may be more important than just a pleasant way to pass the time. Such "attention directing" among low-income children may be related to why some poor children have good self-control under stress and get along well with others and why some don't, according to recent Cornell University research.

"By successfully focusing a young child's attention on objects during free play, parents may be giving their child practice in using attention as a way to shift into a positive emotional state," said Cybele Raver, Cornell assistant professor of human development and family studies. "We found, after controlling for the child's temperament, that children whose parents actively directed and maintained their children's visual attention spent more time distracting themselves away from a source of distress." Raver also found in a more recent study that children who used these strategies, which are indicative of social competence, also got along significantly better with their peers.

Raver's research, which is done with low-income children, is aimed at determining what kinds of positive parenting strategies succeed in buffering children from the fallout of financial hardship. Her findings were published in Developmental Psychology (Vol. 32, No. 5, 1996) and were presented last month at the Head Start Conference in Washington, D.C.

In one study, Raver observed 47 urban low-income mothers and their 2-year-olds for 10 minutes of free play, analyzing how much the pair kept each other's attention. The mother then left the room for four minutes and trained observers noted how the child managed his/her emotions. After the mother returned, the experimenter placed a new toy out of reach of the child, stating that the child could have it in a few minutes after the experimenter returned to the room. Mothers, meanwhile, remained in the room but were preoccupied with a questionnaire or magazine. The observers noted what strategies the toddlers used to cope with the delayed gratification.

"Interestingly, boys directed their attention away from the prohibited toy and toward other objects in the room more than girls while the girls sought more comfort from their mothers. Both strategies were effective for delaying gratification, maintaining behavioral self-control and modulating feelings of distress," said Raver, who teaches courses in early childhood development, children's social development, child development and social policy and the psychological development of women in Cornell's College of Human Ecology.

An a follow-up preliminary study of 51 preschoolers, Raver found that children who used more effective strategies in coping with their emotions while having to wait to play with a special toy were more socially competent, as rated by their peers and teachers.

Studying these relationships among low-income families is important, Raver said, to identify why some "at risk" children are good at regulating their emotions.

In integral aspect of Raver's research is the involvement of undergraduate students in the research process. Alyson Bernhardt, a junior majoring in human development and family studies, has worked with Raver for a year and a half, coding and visiting homes to observe and collect data. Kelly Mathew, also a junior in HDFS, studies videos of the parents and children and using observational skills, codes behavior for analysis.

Previously, researchers have looked at economically disadvantaged children who have a difficult time and have tried to develop ways to help them and their families. Raver takes an opposite approach: she looks at poor children who behave well and seeks to identify parenting strategies that promote children's social competence.

"We too often compare low- and middle-income parenting styles and that's not always appropriate," Raver said. "Instead, we're comparing groups of poor children with each other to glean what is normal and healthy in the development of children for whom poverty is common."

Raver's work is financed, in part, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Cornell University

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